Michigan is home to the United Auto Workers, and the union is at war with Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the state legislature over plans to pass a right-to-work law in the state.
As state legislators, lobbyists and labor advocates debated the issue Thursday amidst union protests, eight people were arrested for resisting and obstructing a police officer as the protesters were trying to push passed police to get onto the Senate floor. More than fifty state police cars and units were deployed to the protest areas in the capitol city of Lansing. Police arrested several protesters and sprayed mace into the crowd when they tried to rush the Senate floor.
Conservatives and Republicans resent the political spending that organized labor unions spend on mostly Democratic candidates. Unions counter that unionized workplaces such as construction sites and auto plants achieve pay and benefit standards, workplace safety and training, and that it is wrong for workers to be hired who don't have to support those efforts.
Police and fire-fighters are excluded from the bill, in part because their opposition to such laws in other states have led to right-to-work laws being overturned.
Obama called the right-to-work initiative part of the "race to the bottom."
"America is not going to compete based on low-skill, low-wage, no workers' rights. That's not our competitive advantage," he said. "There's always going to be some other country that can treat its workers even worse."
The Michigan legislature is expected to take up the vote again Tuesday, and union organizers and protesters are expected to jam the capitol city. Geoff Kish, a union pipefitter from Davison, Michigan told The Detroit Free Press that he worked alongside nonunion tradespeople in the right-to-work state of Louisiana and believes if the change is approved, "it will drive down wages, benefits and the standard of living in Michigan."
Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and CurrenTV host, said on her show: "Right-to-work bills will basically eviscerate workers' ability to organize together and bargain for better wages or working conditions."
Snyder, on Fox TV, countered: "It's really about freedom to choose," he said. "It's about sticking up for the workers in our state. We need workplace equality and fairness, and that's what this legislation is about."
The bill was introduced during a lame-duck session and Snyder said he plans to sign it after it is "fast-tracked." The legislation passed both houses of the state legislature with absolutely no hearings and no public debate, and Snyder could sign it as quickly as Tuesday. The move is happening in a lame-duck session because the new legislature arriving next month has smaller Republican majorities.
Republicans have also attached the legislation to an appropriations bill so that it can't be overturned later by state referendum, as happened with the Ohio right-to-work law Ohio Governor Kasich signed last year that sharply restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees.
Democrats in Michigan believe that Republicans are jamming an unpopular agenda as their power weakens heading into the next election, and that the measure could even lead to violence in the big union state. "I am adamantly opposed to this," Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, told the Free Press. "I think it's a disaster for the state. I think it's shortsighted and vindictive. The state is going to be in a civil war for the next year." State workers in Lansing, especially those working for Republicans were advised by email to not walk the street or to their cars alone.
Snyder, a former venture capitalist who rode to the Governor's mansion in 2010 in the Tea-Party wave, suffered an embarrassing defeat at the polls last month when Michiganders over-turned his "emergency manager" law (which allows for municipal union contracts to be broken when a city faces financial calamity) by referendum.
Ford Motor Co. chairman Bill Ford was outspoken in his support of Snyder in 2010, unusual for Ford. It's a move that could come back to haunt the auto industry scion who has always had a good relationship with the unions.
Snyder claims he is moving fast against the unions because neighboring Indiana passed a similar law and he fears losing jobs to the Hoosier state.
If Snyder follows through signing the law, the 2014 Gubernatorial campaign, and the elections for state and assembly positions could become a bloodbath, with unions spending enormous sums on advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat Republicans. A Democratic Governor and legislature would surely move to repeal the law.